When the newest “Star Wars” movie came out in movie theaters, Perla Nation insisted on waiting to see it with her father, after the holidays. He was by no means a fan of the saga, and neither was she. But the 27-year-old from San Diego had a feeling the movie would resonate with her father, a landscaper who immigrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the early 1980s.
As they sat in the movie theater Monday, the father and daughter watched as one of the main characters, an intelligence officer with the Alliance named Captain Cassian Andor, appeared on the screen.
Nation’s father, Pablo Perez, nudged her as soon as he heard the actor, Diego Luna, speak.
“He has a heavy accent,” Perez uttered to his daughter.
After the movie, as they walked to their car, Perez turned to his daughter and said, once more, “Did you notice that he had an accent?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Nation responded, “just like yours.”
Having watched previous interviews with Luna about his role in the movie, Nation already knew the Mexican actor would be keeping his accent in the movie, she said in an interview with The Washington Post. She thought of her father, with his Mexican accent, and what seeing Luna’s performance could mean to him.
It wasn’t just that a Mexican was on screen, or even that an actor was speaking in a Mexican accent. It was the unexpectedness of the role. There was no particular reason Cassian was Mexican, or why he shouldn’t be. He just was.
“Anybody could be that character,” Nation said. “It was just a natural part of him.”
And for Mexican viewers — and many Latino viewers in general — that made all the difference.
During a time when Hollywood films are facing intense scrutiny for lacking diversity in leading roles, the casting of Diego Luna marked a crucial step forward. It was a rare example of a time when a Latino actor has been cast in a blockbuster film not simply as a token Latino character but as a leading role with no obvious ties to Latino culture.
A study released in February from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that Latinos are among the least represented in speaking roles in film and television. Out of more than 11,000 speaking characters surveyed in film and TV, 5.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, even though Latinos make up 17.4 percent of the U.S. population.
Meanwhile, minorities — particularly Latinos — are the fastest growing movie audience and make up 44 percent of the nation’s most avid theatergoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Far too often, Nation said, Latinos are cast as supporting roles, villains or damsels in distress characterized as sensual or seductive. But in “Star Wars,” Luna was cast as a protagonist. This made an important statement, Nation said, particularly in light of the role immigrants have played in political rhetoric recently.
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